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In mathematics, a geodesic (pronounced /ˌdʒiːɵˈdiːzɨk/, /ˌdʒiːɵˈdɛsɨk/ JEE-o-DEE-zik, JEE-o-DES-ik) is a generalization of the notion of a "straight line" to "curved spaces". In the presence of a metric, geodesics are defined to be (locally) the shortest path between points in the space. In the presence of an affine connection, geodesics are defined to be curves whose tangent vectors remain parallel if they are transported along it.

The term "geodesic" comes from geodesy, the science of measuring the size and shape of Earth; in the original sense, a geodesic was the shortest route between two points on the Earth's surface, namely, a segment of a great circle. The term has been generalized to include measurements in much more general mathematical spaces; for example, in graph theory, one might consider a geodesic between two vertices/nodes of a graph.

Geodesics are of particular importance in general relativity, as they describe the motion of inertial test particles.



The shortest path between two points in a curved space can be found by writing the equation for the length of a curve (a function f from an open interval of R to the manifold), and then minimizing this length using the calculus of variations. This has some minor technical problems, because there is an infinite dimensional space of different ways to parametrize the shortest path. It is simpler to demand not only that the curve locally minimize length but also that it is parametrized "with constant velocity", meaning that the distance from f(s) to f(t) along the geodesic is proportional to |st|. Equivalently, a different quantity may be defined, termed the energy of the curve; minimizing the energy leads to the same equations for a geodesic (here "constant velocity" is a consequence of minimisation). Intuitively, one can understand this second formulation by noting that an elastic band stretched between two points will contract its length, and in so doing will minimize its energy; the resulting shape of the band is a geodesic.

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